Since 1984, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has declared May Allergy Awareness Month. According to the AAFA, about 20 million Americans live with food allergies, including four million children. There is no cure for food allergies, and children often suffer the most by developing other allergies, or asthma. These conditions lead to nearly 100,000 emergency room visits per year! Raising awareness and helping people with allergies are the goals of Allergy Awareness Month.
Diagnosing a food allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity
Do you think you may have a food allergy? If so, visit an allergist for skin and blood tests to identify potential reactions. Sometimes allergists recommend a food challenge (trying potentially allergenic food in a safe environment, such as the doctor’s office). If you test positive for a food allergy, your allergist will help you determine the next steps. Important note: a food allergy is defined as an immune reaction to consuming the protein in the allergenic food. If you are allergic, the reaction will always happen, even if only a small amount is consumed.
In addition to true food allergies, many people also have food sensitivities and intolerances. These are more difficult to identify because many different responses can occur. Unlike food allergies, someone with a sensitivity or intolerance may be able to comfortably consume a small amount of food. And some intolerances can be managed with remedies (such as Lactaid for lactose intolerance). Occasionally, a food sensitivity is the result of medications, or even another condition—irritable bowel syndrome, for one. If you suspect you have a sensitivity or intolerance, keep a detailed food log with symptoms and timing. It will greatly help your clinical team identify potential “cause and effect” reactions to the foods you’re eating.
Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA)
Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) in 2004 to protect Americans living with food allergies. Since then, the FDA has revised FALCPA several times, with more updates pending. FALCPA’s purpose is to provide clear information about ingredients and cross-contamination to people with food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities. Under FALCPA, packaging must clearly state if:
- One of the nine major allergens is present in the product
- The product “may contain” one of the allergens
- The product was “produced in a facility” where one of the allergens exists
One interesting exception is gluten. Because it’s not one of the nine major allergens, gluten doesn’t fall under FALCPA’s packaging mandates. But wheat does. And knowing a product contains wheat or was made where it’s present is very helpful for people with celiac disease. However, it’s important to note that “wheat free” doesn’t mean “gluten free” because gluten can be derived from many ingredients.
Living with food allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities
You need to be more thoughtful about social gatherings when you live with food allergies. Lean on menus that embrace allergy-friendly foods. Learn tried-and-true techniques for creating gluten-free dishes that everyone can enjoy. When you’re not cooking, dining out can also be challenging. Ask your server detailed preparation questions to understand how cross-contamination is prevented in the kitchen. Remember that sometimes a menu item may only appear to be allergy-friendly. Knowing it is for sure is essential to staying safe.
If you’re managing a food allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity, you know how important it is to stay safe and symptom-free. Unfortunately, sometimes doing so causes you to compromise your overall diet. You may turn more to products that are less nutrient-dense. And you may consume increased amounts of attributes to limit like salt, sugar, and saturated fat. Try to maintain focus on a diet high in vegetables, whole grains, heart healthy fats, and lean protein. And if your allergen-related dietary restrictions steer you off this course? Look for Guiding Stars earning items that are both nutrient-dense and allergy-safe.